Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Heat" (1995)

Given that Michael Mann's latest film, "Public Enemies," is still in (a few) theaters, I thought I'd post my review of "Heat," which was a lot of fun. I especially liked the after-heist shootout through the streets of Los Angeles, which oddly enough would be played out in real life not too long afterward.

“Heat” is on with great acting, writing, intensity

Standard-Examiner staff

There is an action scene in “Heat” that is as visceral and powerful as any filmed in years: Four bank robbers are attempting to make their getaway, but they’re encircled by cops in downtown Los Angeles. Both sides are heavily armed, and writer-director Michael Mann, instead of showing us the resulting shootout, puts his audience smack-dab in the middle of it.

For all of the violent action flicks being made, few have ever matched this portion of “Heat.” Words like “intense” and “powerful” come up short.

That said, the rest of the film, which stars Al Pacino and Robert De Niro -- the aging dream duo of Method actors -- as a cop and robber, respectively, isn’t exactly a great film. It is, however, interesting, exciting and smart, and seems much shorter than its excessive 170 minutes.

“Heat” is the story of two men on opposite sides of the law. Vincent Hanna (Pacino) is an obsessive cop who’s in the process of sacrificing his third marriage on the altar of law enforcement. A supercop in the L.A.P.D.’s Robbery/Homicide Division, Hanna’s on the trail of a murderous but well disciplined and effective hold-up crew.

Neil McCauley (De Niro) is the aforementioned crew’s leader, and the object of Hanna’s fixation. A real pro in the murder-theft game, McCauley is a professional loner, and a guy who lives by the credo that a thief should have nothing in his life that he can’t leave immediately when he senses cops are around the corner. But lately, he’s grown weary of the underworld game, has fallen in love with a young graphic artist (Amy Brenneman), and is planning to make one or two more big scores, then take it on the lam to New Zealand, where he will live out his days on his ill-gotten wealth.
The prospect of Pacino and De Niro squaring off on-screen is a dreamy one. But, alas, they spend something less than 10 minutes in the same frame. The scenes are memorable, though, and therefore shouldn’t be spoiled by a description here.

Although “Heat” is too long, that length does have at least one benefit: Mann’s script includes plenty of supporting characters, and the actors in the roles make the most of it.

Casting against type has always been one of Mann’s strengths. (Remember funny man James Belushi in the director’s underrated “Thief,” or Merchant-Ivory drawing-room specialist Daniel Day-Lewis in “Last of the Mohicans”?) And “Heat” is a prime example.

Ted Levine, the murderous Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs,” plays a cop here, as does Wes Studi, who previously has played mostly Native American roles in various westerns. Jon Voight and Val Kilmer, on the other hand, have derived most of their fame from playing it straight -- and in Kilmer’s case, “Batman,” for crying out loud -- but here Mann has cast them as the most ruthless and efficient killers.

Furthermore, Mann investigates the personal lives of Hanna, McCauley and Kilmer’s gambling junkie, Chris Shiherlis. (Ashley Judd is good, too, as Shiherlis’ wife.) And, in truth, these are probably the film’s weakest links. The movie skips right along when the subject is planning the heist, or planning to arrest the men who are planning the heist. But “Heat” slows and frequently seems contrived when exploring the home lives of its various characters.

Fans of crime melodrama should enjoy “Heat,” an imaginative, stylish and expansive film. Others may find its violence and language off-putting. All will have to admit, though, this film presents some of the sharpest writing and best acting of the season.

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